“the ground, new worked, moist
and yielding underfoot, the feet
comfortable in it as roots;”
from “The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer” by Wendell Berry
Christopher McDougall didn’t plan on becoming an ultra-runner. He didn’t plan on traveling to Greece to re-enact the movements of a covert group of rebel fighters. And he didn’t plan on owning a donkey to run with through the Colorado Rockies. Rather, McDougall lives his life like he’s exploring new trails in the wilderness.
McDougall is a Lancaster County resident and author of two successful books. In his debut book “Born to Run,” McDougall spent time with the Tarahumara running tribe in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, met a mysterious American runner-gone-tribal known only as Caballo Blanco and learned secrets of the human body that led him to kick off expensive running shoes for good.
McDougall’s latest book, “Natural Born Heroes,” takes readers on an even greater adventure through the mountains of Crete to argue for the enormous untapped potential of our bodies.
McDougall lives in Peach Bottom with his wife Mika, a dancer and musician with Ukulele Uprising. The couple have two teenage daughters. And there are donkeys, too, named Matilda, Flower and Sherman. For this interview I met McDougall at one of his favorite restaurants, C.R. Lapp’s Family Restaurant in Quarryville. It’s 10 miles away from his house so he often runs to the restaurant to meet his wife for a quick lunch.
McDougall is warm and welcoming and our wide-ranging conversation took interesting twists. (Personally, McDougall’s books inspired me to get off the couch, lace up my sneakers and hit the streets for a run. No, I’m not going barefoot yet, but I’m enjoying it.)
A major theme in “Born to Run” and “Natural Born Heroes” is that people have lost touch with what their bodies can achieve. Why do you think we’ve lost our way and stopped trusting in our bodies?
That’s a perfect question. And not all of us have lost our way. See this little guy over here? (McDougall points to a small child fidgeting in his chair.) Turn that kid loose in here and what’s he going to do? He’s going to climb on everything. He’s going to climb on everything. ...So kids have it figured out. You take a bunch of kids to the gym and they’re not going to sit on a machine, they are going to turn it into a gigantic playground.
So, unfortunately, where we went astray is that we basically turned ourselves from wild animals into domestic animals. We put ourselves through the same process we put our livestock through. Which is, like, you have a bunch of deer and they are running wild and you domesticate them into cattle and put them into stalls. We’ve done the same thing with human life.
We structured our lives around 9 o’clock to 5 o’clock. Well, that doesn’t really correspond to anything, other than a conventional business day. If you’re working 9 to 5 than you’re driving your car from 8 to 9 and from 5 to 6, which leaves very little left over for other things. So, we have 45 minutes for a workout. So we go to the gym.
We basically created this artificial life, because it’s more convenient than anything else. The gym, just like the running shoe companies, are doing what serves them rather than doing what serves you. Running shoes are useless.
That was one of the most interesting parts of “Born to Run”– the fact that your foot is supposed to adapt to the terrain and when you have these high-tech sneakers that don’t allow you to do that, it’s way worse for you. That’s something that I never would’ve guessed.
I hear it all the time, “(barefoot running is) OK for some people.” But, I am the "some people" they said it was bad for. I was about 50 pounds heavier when I started all this. I was a big, heavy dude. And I run in sandals now and I never have a problem. So, I’m exactly the kind of person they said, “You have to have a shoe.” And I don’t.
You recently posted an article on your Facebook page called “Why Do We Care What Others Think” and it was about Wilt Chamberlain’s struggles at the free throw line. Did you post that in relation to your preference to running barefoot or in sandals?
It’s funny, Wilt’s weakness was free throws. He was a terrible free-throw shooter. And one year Rick Barry, who used to shoot a granny shot, a bucket shot – his free throw percentage was like 97 percent – said to Wilt, “Why don’t you shoot a granny shot, dude? You’ll improve your shooting dramatically.”
So, one season Wilt went from an overhand shot to an underhand shot and he doubled his free-throw percentage. He did it for one season and then he went back (to the overhand style) and his free throws just dropped. And they said “Why?” And he said “I just felt silly.”
So, Wilt would rather look good and score less than score more and look bad. He made the choice. And again, I see it with running shoes, people would rather wear what everyone else is wearing, even though it does nothing, rather than (run barefoot or in sandals) and look a little bit weird, but run better.
Are those what you run in? (I look down at McDougall’s sandals)
Yeah, these are my walk-around shoes and my running shoes.
So you asked me: Why is it that we’ve gotten away from it? Number one is that we’ve become a money economy instead of a foraging economy. And secondly, because people have convinced you that what’s best for them is what’s best for you.
I realized what happens is that we have this tendency to – whatever we are looking at in America in the year 2016 – is what we’ve always done. And then you step back and it’s like, you know what, in 1960 these shoes didn’t exist. People ran. In 1950, (Gatorade) didn’t exist. People didn’t die.
That’s a great point. It’s natural for people to think that this point in time is the most advanced that we’ll ever be and we know it all. What scares you about today’s culture?
Well, I’ll say the opposite. What makes me optimistic is that we keep cycling back. We keep making mistakes, then we cycle back. What’s interesting is looking at our Amish neighbors. Everything we talk about: don’t be dependent on fossil fuels, eat local foods, simplify your life, stay close to the Earth. They’re pretty much on the money. The Amish have been doing that forever. So, I’d say rather than being afraid, I’m sort of like, I think we keep figuring things out and going back to things that work.
If I do have a concern it’s that mass marketing tends to drown out some of the other voices
So, I’m guessing you don’t have a gym membership?
Not since I lived in Philly. Even when I had a gym membership, I never went. As soon as I walked in, I felt depressed. All this machinery and mirrors. Repetition. It’s repetition. If I know what I’m going to do before I’m going to do it, I don’t want to do it.
Feels like work right?
Total work. The gym culture is not designed to make you healthier, but to make them richer. These machines, which isolate a muscle and you do it over and over... it doesn’t help you. It helps them. Because it puts you in a compartment like a little veal calf and you stay in a little pen and do this thing and then this thing.
So, temperamentally, I don’t like it and then, intellectually, I think it’s not a good idea. I haven’t had a gym membership (in years) and I’m way healthier than I’ve ever been.
So, you run with the Amish? What’s the Amish running culture like?
It’s really cool. There’s a running club in Strasburg called Vella Shpringa. It’s a group of Amish people that get together to run. They have a rotating fun run at someone else’s farm around the area. Actually, I hosted one out at my house this past fall. So, it’ll be a full moon and everyone will get in touch and 20 to 30 runners will show up. Mostly Amish, Mennonite, a few outsiders and they’ll do a run of like five to 10 miles and have a little pot luck barbecue afterwards. To me, what’s best about running is what they do. It’s informal. It’s fun. They run hard, but it’s very friendly. It feels more like a party.
What is it about running that is fun for you?
It’s recess. Like someone just rang the bell and said go out and play. Totally that. The sense of playfulness. I think running with the donkeys has really played into that. You’re out with this big stinking animal on a road and people are slowing down looking at you and the donkey is doing its own thing. I think it just feels like play. It’s pure playtime.
So, yeah, let’s get into that. You own three donkeys and decided to train them to participate in these pack-burros races that are inspired by the use of donkeys during the gold-prospecting days. You and your wife, Mika just came back from the burro race in Fairplay, Colorado. What’s it like running with donkeys?
My wife had never run 15 miles before. I think the farthest she’d ever run was 10 miles. But she ran 15 miles in the Rockies at 12,000 feet and I think the reason why is because we had fun nonstop. We had the donkeys out there and we were talking and chatting. We could’ve run faster, but we also could’ve flamed out. I’d rather run slower and have fun than run faster and hate it. A lot of people have trouble with that attitude, like if you’re not running fast than you’re not working. And if it’s not work then why am I doing it?……
(The donkeys) need to be trained because it’s not necessarily the donkey’s idea of what to do that afternoon. How to work the chemistry was the real breakthrough. So, the one little one Matilda, is kind of the leader, but she’s not the best runner. So, she’ll lead them and the other two will follow and then Flower, who’s a better runner will take over. And then Sherman doesn’t like to be too far away. So you actually have to figure out how to maneuver them. Then they’ll just go – as long as you put them in the right order. ...
Really? I’d always heard they were stubborn.
They are. They’re stubborn, but for a reason. You can’t force a donkey to do something that will hurt it.
So, if you want a horse to jump off a cliff, it’ll do it. Just ride the horse and it’ll do what you want. That’s why burro racing works, because the burro goes first. The burro decides where it wants to go. They have very sure footing and they’re very reliable. A horse will screw up, and you can make a horse screw up, but a donkey will just drop anchor and won’t move. That’s why explorers love them, because if you’re in unknown territory, you can actually trust a donkey to not fall off a cliff.
So, this is your next book?
Yeah. Mostly, I’m interested in animal-human partnerships. We’ve sort of decided that animals aren’t really important to us. Then, we changed our mind and decided that they are. For most of human existence, we had dogs by our side, horses we rode and carriages. And in the past 100 years we just stopped.
Now we’re realizing we need therapy dogs. We need household pets. So, we’re trying to reawaken this partnership, but we don’t really know how. We’re sort of realizing that maybe we missed out on something. Maybe they’re more important than we realized. That’s what I’m looking at: What did we lose when we stopped hanging out with animals so much?
Do you approach writing a book like running a marathon?
Totally. I think the reason why people hate running a lot of times is because they are always thinking of the finish line. They want to get to the finish line as soon as they can. The really good experienced runners realize that you focus on one mile at a time. Focus on this one moment in time. I think writing books is the same way. Forget about what’s going to happen at the end. What am I writing about right now and make it lively and then move on to the next thing.
It actually almost perfectly parallels. When I do a book, I’ll take a big piece of poster board and just like smash it up into a grid and it’ll be about 25-30 blocks. It’s funny how much it parallels an actual marathon. A marathon is 26 miles. I have 25-30 blocks and I think “OK, here is where I start and here is where it’s going to end.” I know what the first chapter is going to be. I know what the end is going to be. And then I have a list of other stuff I want to write about.
Do you think about writing while you’re running?
I’ll start writing first during the day and when I hit a logjam, I’ll get out the door. It’s while you’re on a run that the logjam breaks up. There’s something about running because it forces you to focus on something else. It’s like “I’m out of breath. My leg hurts. Which way should I go?” And once you change focus you get these fresh ideas.
When people think of Lancaster one of the first things they bring up is the quality of the produce. But you also write a lot about the benefits of eating weeds and wild foods in “Natural Born Heroes.” What kinds of wild food can you find in Lancaster County?
It’s one thing to offer advice to everyone in the country, but I want to live this advice that I’m giving people. So, foraging for food was the first revelation. I knew I could get great produce out here, but, what’s really exciting is I could go out my door and find mustard greens, wild asparagus, black walnuts and wild onions right there on the ground.
We’re so privileged, like unbelievably, obscenely privileged in Lancaster Country. James Michener wrote about Lancaster County (in “The Novel”) and almost on the first page he says something like “These green vibrant hills are the most lush fertile farmland in the country.” And I agree with him.
You write a lot about getting the most out of your food in “Natural Born Heroes.” Do you live a rigid Spartan lifestyle?
Not rigid at all. I don’t think it’s a question of setting rules for yourself. I think it’s more like understanding how things work. So, it’s kind of like the Amish. Everybody thinks the Amish are all about rules and they’re sort of not. They’re more about understanding how things work. You know when people talk about Amish shunning? It’s not like “You broke this rule therefore you’re out.” It’s more like you understand how the community works and you’re choosing not to be a part of it. Well, we’re going to choose to do this.
It’s much more understanding cause and effect. So with me it’s kind of like that too. It’s not like I won’t eat this bun. If I feel like the bun, I’ll eat the bun. But, I’m also going to realize I’m going to pay a price for that bun.
We have a neighbor who makes these amazing peach pies. Fresh peaches. Fresh whipped cream. She only makes them for about three weeks of the year. I will eat the crap out of those things for three weeks, you know? Because I know that come September, they’re gone for the year.